The challenges of linking WASH and WRM to achieve SDG6 in times of climate change

Highlights from the IRC thematic debate on linkages between WASH and Water Resource Management - 22 November 2017

IRC, an international think-and-do tank aiming to help find long term solutions for the global crisis in WASH services, advocates the inclusion of watershed governance and integrity issues in the global debate. One of their latest events on this topic focused on how WASH and Water Resource Management can be linked in Dutch development cooperation policy in the water sector and in an initiative called International Water Ambition (IWA).This initiative focuses on ‘Sufficient access to water, Improved resilience and Less damage – Worldwide’. The ambition is to build partnerships involving Dutch organizations and companies to support water initiatives in various (delta-)countries and cities.

Here are a few key takeaways and personal reflections on the debate and its conclusions.

The debate was triggered by speakers with different perspectives on the international water sector: Jane Madgwick, CEO of Wetlands International, Pim van der Male, Senior Policy Officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Niels Vlaanderen, Coordinator for International Water Affairs at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water management, and Patrick Moriarty, CEO of IRC-WASH. It led to some interesting analyses of water sector challenges and indirectly pointed to the need to consider integrity challenges if we want to avoid always repeating the same mistakes.


Silo thinking continues despite shifts in terminology and new analysis frameworks

The need for an integrated approach to tackle the issues of limited access to safe water and sanitation, environmental degradation, and the threat of climate change, was formulated in the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development of 31 January 1992, over 20 years ago. This statement includes four guiding principles which are also generally referred to as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) principles, even though the term IWRM itself doesn’t specifically appear in the statement.

IWRM, as it deals with different interconnected and often competing water uses, was supposed to highlight the need for participatory and process-oriented approaches. However, the term IWRM largely replaced the term Water Resource Management (WRM) without the profound changes in policies and practices meant by the Dublin Statement. The situation remains relatively grim. Many would disagree on whether real progress has been achieved and silo thinking continues to make it difficult to strike a balance between short-term quantified priorities and a longer-term approach for sustainability.

The term IWRM is now also losing traction, and is often replaced by that of water security, which stands for a new family of definitions and concepts about the way we need to deal with land, water and sustainable development. This new change in terminology seems to reflect the felt need among water professionals to reach a better understanding of the links between management of water and land resources, and the sustainability of WASH services, and hence make their interventions more effective.

The various terminology shifts may help, or have helped, make choices and find solutions, especially in relatively favourable and stable policy environments. But many nuances are lost in translation. In contexts where English is not commonly used, or in situations characterized by water stress, land and environmental degradation, population growth and accelerated urbanization, the terminology may also have caused confusion, adding complexity and diminishing transparency and accountability, with adverse effects for sustainable development.


The post-2015 agenda seeks to revitalize and mainstream the integrated approach across sectors

Back to basics, the current set of SDGs, and SDG6 specifically, seem to reflect the recommendations formulated in the Dublin Statement about holistic and integrated approaches for better, and more effective, water and land resources management, in order to meet sustainability challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals have been negotiated taking into account different vested interests and resulted in an integrated agenda for sustainable change, meant to avoid certain problems that limited the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.


Integrity risks must be taken
into account for real change

To really achieve the SDGs it will now be important to take note that even when seeking to work holistically, changing attitudes and behaviour takes time and efforts. And, above all, there are integrity and other risks to be taken into account and minimized when allocating and using budgets. This also means giving more attention to defining specific outcomes and the indicators required to monitor progress at local, watershed, city, and country levels in specific contexts.

The IWA initiative supported by three Dutch Ministries and presented at the debate might provide opportunities to set examples of how to develop more effective solutions with clear outcomes and indicators in earmarked countries, while promoting Dutch business and trade at the same time. However, there is a clear ethical dimension that needs to be recognized to ensure that Dutch partnerships and efforts are strategic and genuinely geared to contribute to collective efforts to achieve SDGs. Using Dutch political influence for economic gains could result in conflicts of interest that go against efforts to empower civil society and result in loss of trust and reputational damage. In international cooperation and when focusing on Dutch trade interests, it is crucial to continue working in the spirit of OECD principles on water governance and to identify integrity risks at various stages of planning and implementation of programmes and projects.


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